Autism Originates In Womb With Disrupted Brain Cells, Research Finds, As Rates Of The Condition Surge Again

A new study published Thursday supports the hypothesis that autism may originate before birth. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that specific brain abnormalities were common in children with autism, and rarer in those who did not have the disorder. The news comes alongside new CDC statistics that found that one in 68 children has autism, up from one in 88, suggesting the condition is on the rise.

The small-scale study looked at the brains of 22 deceased children between the ages of two and 15 who had died from a range of causes, including drowning, asthma and heart problems. Of the 22 brains examined, 11 were from children with autism.

The researchers found clusters of disorganized brain cells in the regions of the brain that regulate social functioning, communication and emotions, which are functions likely to be difficult for people with autism. Researchers found these abnormalities in 10 of the 11 brains of children with autism, but in only 1 of the 11 brains of children who did not have the disorder. This strengthens the hypothesis that disruptions in typical brain development during pregnancy could be a cause of the condition.

The researchers noted that these abnormalities probably developed during the second or third trimester.

The study used actual analysis of brain tissue, rather than imaging technology such as MRI scans that are used in the majority of other studies. Previously, only a handful of investigations had been based on tissue studies, and in the majority of cases this tissue was taken from the brains of adults.

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There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding this study. For starters, the sample size was very small, and there are also no firm indications as yet as to what causes the abnormalities.

However, the research does support previous studies that have suggested that autism could be linked to abnormalities in the brain's pre-frontal cortex; researchers found the disorganized brain cells in this region and adjacent areas.

The research takes a step forward in countering popular but largely unfounded theories about the causes of autism, including that myth that the disorder can be linked to childhood vaccines.

Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which helped to fund the research, told press that the researchers who conducted this study used cutting-edge techniques to examine tissue in much more detail than previous studies. However, he added that the study highlighted the need for greater availability of brain tissue for examination, if scientists are to gain a better understanding of autism and its possible causes.